New year, new city, new culture

River Wards nat­ive shares unique tra­di­tion of ex­plor­ing the hol­i­day in oth­er coun­tries.

  • Party in the UAE: Educational psychology scholar Thomas Dixon enjoys New Year’s Eve 2014 with new friends in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. PHOTO: THOMAS DIXON

  • Thomas Dixon gives a talk at Penn Museum about traveling on New Year’s Eve. CHRISTOPHER SEAMANS / STAR PHOTO

Have you ever wondered how they cel­eb­rate New Year’s Eve in oth­er coun­tries?

Olde Rich­mond nat­ive and edu­ca­tion­al psy­cho­logy schol­ar Thomas Dix­on does.  

In fact, he’s so curi­ous that he has es­tab­lished a unique tra­di­tion.  Every year, he sets off to a new coun­try and a new city to learn how they cel­eb­rate the hol­i­day—or, if they even cel­eb­rate it at all.

Last Sat­urday, Dix­on gave a talk about this tra­di­tion as part of the pro­gram “Cel­eb­ra­tions around the World” at the Penn Mu­seum.

Dix­on’s par­ents are not world trav­el­ers.  In fact, they don’t even have pass­ports.  So how did his tra­di­tion get its start?

While he was in col­lege, he vis­ited his girl­friend’s fam­ily in Taiwan over winter break in 2003.  He ex­pec­ted a cel­eb­ra­tion as the cal­en­dar rolled over to 2004.

“I thought it was a stand­ard.  I thought it was a giv­en that people would cel­eb­rate New Year’s Eve around the world, and when I was with my girl­friend’s fam­ily, they looked at me like I was a weirdo when I said, ‘What are we do­ing?’  They said, ‘What are you talk­ing about?  It’s Tues­day.’ ”

He was shocked that they didn’t cel­eb­rate the hol­i­day.  

“I star­ted to won­der what else I was wrong about and how I could change,” Dix­on said.  “I knew I was wrong about many things, but I didn’t even know what I was wrong about.  So I had to find out.”

That’s when he hit upon the idea to travel around the world to ex­per­i­ence New Year’s Eve in dif­fer­ent cit­ies.  

The first year, 2004-2005, he still wasn’t fully com­mit­ted and he cheated some­what, go­ing to New York City.

After that, he es­tab­lished a series of rules.

“My trips must be some­where I have nev­er been be­fore at all,” he ex­plained.  “If I’ve been to the coun­try at all, it’s not eli­gible.  And I’m not go­ing to go in­to a war zone, so it has to be safe enough.  I’m not go­ing to risk my life, hope­fully.”

He also tries to vary the cit­ies he vis­its. 

“I’ll try to mix it up, go­ing between hot areas and cold areas, and I want to have some dis­tance as well.  Coun­tries next to one an­oth­er are go­ing to be more sim­il­ar to each oth­er, per­haps.”

New Year’s cel­eb­ra­tions are not a re­quire­ment, though.  

Al­though it’s get­ting more dif­fi­cult as a res­ult of forces like glob­al­iz­a­tion that change cus­toms and cul­tures, Dix­on seeks coun­tries where they don’t cel­eb­rate New Year’s Eve, say­ing, “I still hope to go to coun­tries where they don’t cel­eb­rate so I can again be re­minded that they don’t have to do this.”

Dix­on has been to Lon­don, Tokyo, Mex­ico City, Dubai, Par­is, and Am­s­ter­dam.  

This year, he in­tends to go to Sweden.  They do cel­eb­rate New Year’s Eve in those cit­ies, but they don’t al­ways do it the same way.

When he went to Dubai for New Year’s Eve 2014, he dis­covered that not only do they cel­eb­rate the hol­i­day, but they do it big.  That year, the city set the world re­cord for fire­works.  The fol­low­ing year, he went to Par­is and dis­covered that, while they cel­eb­rate New Year’s Eve, they don’t launch fire­works.

The as­sump­tions that we make can cause prob­lems, es­pe­cially in aca­dem­ic fields, ac­cord­ing to Dix­on.

“There was a pa­per that came out re­cently, 2010, ‘The Weird­est People in the World.’  And it was talk­ing about how a lot of re­search that is done is fo­cus­ing on ‘weird’ pop­u­la­tions,” Dix­on said.  “This really mat­ters, be­cause we’re mak­ing gen­er­al­iz­a­tions about people in psy­cho­logy and edu­ca­tion, but we’re fo­cus­ing on a very ‘weird’ pop­u­la­tion: West­ern, edu­cated, in­dus­tri­al­ized, rich, demo­crat­ic.

“Most of the world is not West­ern, edu­cated, in­dus­tri­al­ized, rich, demo­crat­ic and yet here are fields like edu­ca­tion and psy­cho­logy talk­ing about people like we could study col­lege kids.”

While Dix­on points out that trav­el­ing around the world can be chal­len­ging for many people, he faces some chal­lenges that are spe­cif­ic to him. 

In 2010 he was hit by a car, which nearly killed him and left him un­able to travel for two years.  The res­ult­ing in­jury to his brain left him suf­fer­ing from seizures and epis­od­ic memory loss.

He com­bats his memory loss through the use of vari­ous strategies, in­clud­ing a spe­cial smart­phone app that he helped to design that al­lows him to keep a run­ning, search­able di­ary.

Talk­ing about his trip to Mex­ico City, he said, “I want this to be en­cour­aging for any­one you know with med­ic­al con­di­tions.  I still was able to go out and cel­eb­rate New Year’s Eve even though I had a seizure around 4:30 that day, partly be­cause my girl­friend and I were able to go out to­geth­er.  I’m really glad that my med­ic­al con­di­tions have not got­ten in the way of cel­eb­rat­ing these trips.” 

For more in­form­a­tion about the Penn Mu­seum’s World Cul­ture Days, vis­it: www.penn.mu­seum.

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